STRONG MEDICINE

WHEN ITS YOUTHS FALTERED IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, THE TRIBE LOOKED WITHIN

Riley Briones was suicidal. His girlfriend was breaking up with him. He and his parents were constantly fighting. He didn't fit in at school. His life was a mess.

But Riley, who was 14 at the time, didn't have the nerve to kill himself. A cousin suggested he accompany him to a gang party, where there were certain to be weapons and any number of obliging executioners.

One by one, the drunken partygoers filtered out. The only ones left were gangbangers and Riley. The shooter was chosen. "You want to die?" he asked Riley. Riley nodded.

"Stand against the wall. I don't want blood on my carpet," the gunman said.
Riley obeyed, and the gang member stuck a 9mm pistol in Briones' face and told him to open his mouth. "I'm going to count to three, and I'm going to be the last person you'll ever see," he said.

When the gunner stuffed the pistol into Riley's mouth and pulled the trigger, nothing happened. Instead of killing him, the gang members roughed him up. Ultimately, they would give him a blue bandanna, the gang's colors. His suicide turned into an initiation.

Riley is not the product of a barrio or housing project. He's half Apache and half Pima Indian, and his 17 years have been a jumble of contradictions. He's spent most of those years on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a reservation bounded by bustling cities. He wears his dark hair to the middle of his back because it is his heritage as a Native American. Yet he's run with a black and Hispanic gang, and wears the uniform of the "Crips." He became a father at age 15.

He was bright enough to get good grades in school; when he was younger, attending the Bureau of Indian Affairs school on the reservation, he was even elected class president. But as his teen years approached, he came to believe he didn't belong where he'd been sent--to a public school in the white man's world.

He didn't belong anywhere, he believed, except in a grave.
Riley doesn't believe that anymore. His death wish has vanished. He still wears gang colors, but he's no longer looking for trouble. He's going to school on the reservation--his own turf--and expects to get a high school diploma next spring, something that eludes an alarming number of his reservation peers.

He lives with his parents, three siblings, his year-old daughter and his future wife on a half-acre of the reservation, surrounded by flat farmland. They used to live in a small trailer on the parcel. But just last month, the family moved into a new home.

To the east of their home and the 55,000-acre reservation is the Verde River; beyond that, the McDowell Mountains loom. To the west are the boutiques of Scottsdale. To the north, Fountain Hills. To the south are the Salt River and the distant steeples of Mesa.

Riley knows Mesa well. When he attended public school there, he was frequently in trouble. Once, while attending Mountain View High, he tangled with a "skinhead." His father pulled him out of school because he feared reprisals. Last fall Riley started school at Westwood High, but was suspended after a gang fight in which he stabbed a foe.

But Riley doesn't fight at school anymore. His enrollment in a new alternative school on the reservation has been a catalyst in his transformation. The school's curriculum revolves around Indian culture.

When Riley started at the alternative school, his teacher did not scold him for doodling and sketching while she lectured. On a recent evening, Riley sat in his parents' new home and pored over a stack of those pencil drawings. Some are stunningly realistic; others could be from a fantasy magazine. The images come straight from his experience as a gang member, a teenage father, a product of the reservation. Some are from the dark side--scantily clad women with guns, chilling images of death. Some are of beauty--a drawing of his future wife, Carmen Montiel, with her long hair flowing. Some are of tribal superstitions--his view of goatman, what many of his friends view as the devil. They are from his world.

"When I went to the Mesa schools, I always had to worry that I might get in a fight," Riley says. "You look forward to going to school on the reservation. If you didn't go, you'd most likely get into trouble."
The new school has taught Riley a lot about what it means to be an Indian. The school has gone a long way toward healing what ails him. That's fitting, because the school is called Medicine Wheel.

@rule:
@body:Until World War II, most children living on the Pima-Maricopa reservation attended the BIA-run Salt River Day School for both elementary and high schools. The kids rarely left the reservation. Others attended religious boarding schools, often out of state.

But after the war, the federal government began to encourage Native American families to send their kids to traditional public schools. Some Salt River kids enrolled in Scottsdale schools. Sometime in the 1950s, the students abruptly left Scottsdale schools. Exactly what happened is a subject of some debate. People from the reservation say Scottsdale booted the students out en masse. Current Scottsdale school officials say they aren't sure what, if anything, happened.

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